Today we’re returning to our series of occasional blogs spread over the year and looking at British proverbs, their meanings and origins.
A proverb is a short, pithy saying that neatly expresses a commonly held truth or piece of wisdom. Proverbs have proved so useful in language that they appear in most cultures, often playing an important role in religion or spiritual teachings, as well as everyday life.
A great deal of common sense and worldly experience is encapsulated in proverbs. Today we’ll take a look at some beginning with the letter ‘N’:
Never look a gift horse in the mouth: Here’s a very old proverb, meaning don’t be too picky if you’re getting something for nothing! If you were investing good money in a horse you’d be wise to look carefully in its mouth, as the number and condition of a horse’s teeth is a good indicator of both its age and general condition. An old horse could be “long in the tooth” and not such a good investment. But if someone was giving you a horse, for free, you would appear very ungrateful by gawping in its mouth to gauge the quality and value of the gift. Better to just be grateful and accept the horse with profuse thanks… then look in its mouth once you get it home! Obviously, this proverb has a much broader usage than just its literal equine one, meaning that anything given freely shouldn’t be analysed too closely.
Ne’er cast a clout till May is out: This proverb, dating from at least the early 1700s, tells us that it’s unwise to discard a layer of clothing before the end of May, no doubt due to the unpredictability of British weather! In modern times, when people own more clothes, it can also mean don’t switch to your summer wardrobe until June is here. A ‘clout’ is simply an old word for a piece of clothing, perhaps your warm winter coat. Even though the odd May day might be deceptively warm and sunny, it could be a mistake to ‘cast off a clout’ as the British spring can soon turn wintry again. The word ‘May’ might not refer directly to the month, but to the blossom of the hawthorn tree, also called ‘may’. It usually flowers in late April to early May, so the ‘till May is out’ might mean until the hawthorn is in bloom.
Necessity is the mother of invention: This proverb assures us that we will usually come up with an inventive solution to a difficult problem when we really need to. Perhaps the best ever real-life portrayal of this proverb in action came during the 1970 Apollo 13 space flight to the moon. Two days into the mission, an oxygen tank on the space module exploded, threatening the lives of the three-man crew and prompting a now-legendary message to mission control from its commander Jim Lovell: “Houston, we have a problem.” (Actually, that’s not quite what he said, but that’s another story.) Over the next four days and despite considerable difficulties caused by the explosion, the crew, working with engineers at mission control, managed to knock together a makeshift solution by scavenging bits and pieces of equipment from the module to effect a repair. It was enough to get them safely back to Earth. The exact origin of this proverb is unknown, except to say that it is very old, with versions of it appearing in print as early as the 1650s.
No man is an island: Dating from the 17th century, this proverb tells us that no single person is separate from the rest of humanity. It expresses the belief that people do best when they live and work together in a community, but do badly when isolated from others. Unlike many proverbs, we can pinpoint the origin of this one to a 1624 work by English poet John Donne (1572-1631). He wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”. The same passage goes on to say that when a man dies, a little piece of his friends dies with him because they are all “involved in mankind”. “And therefore”, wrote Donne, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” How’s that for two well-known proverbs in a single passage of prose!
No names, no pack drill: Readers with a military background may be familiar with this proverb, which warns us to ‘keep schtum’ if we want to avoid repercussions. In the British Army, ‘pack drill’ was a longstanding punishment frequently meted out to soldiers for a range of misdemeanours. It involved undertaking exercise (drill) in uniform and carrying full equipment in a heavy pack. The thinking behind this proverb was that when something bad happened, as long as no-one was named as being responsible they couldn’t be punished with pack drill, hence ‘no names, no pack drill’. In reality, officers and NCOs soon got wise to ‘the silent routine’ and found ways around it. The most common was that unless the guilty party owned up – or was named – then the entire group would be held responsible and punished in his stead. This gave the innocent ones in the group a difficult dilemma – whether to ‘grass up’ their comrade or keep quiet and endure a punishment they didn’t deserve. The same principle for discovering a culprit was often applied by schoolteachers in their classrooms. Who remembers hearing: “Well no-one’s going anywhere until someone owns up… I don’t care if it takes all day.” Let the battle of wills commence!